Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Monarch Rising

Dyana checks milkweed leaf for eggs
A few weeks ago, I visited with Dyana, a good friend in Burlington who had started to raise monarch butterflies—now preparing for their major migration back to Mexico. Dyana searches the milkweed growing in scrub patches in her neighbourhood and when she finds a leaf bearing a monarch egg, she brings it inside to protect the egg from parasites and other neighbourhood threats.

COSEWIC (the committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada) reported that the monarch is now officially “endangered”, victim to habitat loss of wintering grounds (through illegal logging) in Mexico, and increasing destruction of milkweed caterpillar breeding habitat by drought and insecticide in Canada and the United States. 

While GMO corn, canola and soybeans have been engineered to be immune to the herbicide Round-Up (glyphosate), which is used liberally in large corporate farms, milkweed—on which the monarch caterpillar exclusively feeds—and other native “weeds” are destroyed. In addition to its threat from liberal use of herbicides, the milkweed was additionally targeted as a noxious weed. It was only after serious lobbying by scientists and activists that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs removed milkweed from its list of noxious weeds so provincial inspectors would no longer target the plant for destruction.

Milkweed planted in a house owner's garden 
Close to a 90% reduction in monarchs was observed in the last two decades since Round-Up was aggressively introduced. The monarch butterfly migration is now recognized as a “threatened process” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Deforestation, climate change, and increased use of herbicides targeting milkweed on farms caused the monarch’s North American population to decline precipitously, from nearly 1 billion in the mid-’90s to less than 35 million in 2013,” writes TVO.

Our role in Canada is paramount as part of the monarch’s four generation cycle. Overwintering butterflies leave Mexico in early spring and migrate into the southern US, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants before dying. Just as in a relay race, the second generation feed only on milkweed, then as adults migrate further north in May/June into Canada to create the third generation of summer butterflies. The last generation returns in September/October to Mexico to overwinter. Unlike the previous three generations, the fourth generation monarch lives beyond two to six weeks in the warmer climate of California and Mexico until it is time to start the migration again in the spring.

Monarch butterfly egg with 1st instar head showing
Within about four days, the egg hatches into a monarch caterpillar, covered in white, black, and yellow stripes. When it emerges, it is very small; just like the egg itself, which Dyana admitted she missed seeing on many occasions until she’d trained her eye to see them. Eggs are only about the size of a pinhead or pencil tip. They are off-white or yellow, characterized by longitudinal ridges that run from the tip to the base. 

Monarch females usually lay a single egg on a milkweed plant, often on the bottom of a leaf near the top of the plant. They lay from 300 to 500 eggs over two to five weeks. The dark head of the developing caterpillar can be seen near the top of the egg prior to emergence. 
Monarch caterpillar-photo by Digital Still
Within 10 days the tiny and voraciously feeding caterpillar is full size and a robust 25-45 mm long and 5-8 mm wide. When the caterpillar develops “spats” on its copious legs, it is ready to find a place to hang upside down and become a chrysalis. Within another 10 days the butterfly emerges, fully formed and ready to return outside. Because the monarch is not able yet to take flight, its first few hours out of the chrysalis are perilous. Another butterfly helper, 
Margaret McRae shares that: “One time, I had two butterflies emerge within 15 minutes of each other. I was outside with them when a wasp attacked one and started eating it. A neighbour kid came by and we stood there for two hours, watching over the other butterfly to protect it from the wasps.”
Caterpillar hangs and forms a chrysalis
In 2014, the David Suzuki Foundation launched their “Got Milkweed?” campaign. First they convinced a nursery to grow the plant (which was considered a weed and not sold at garden centres), then they encouraged members of the public to plant it around their homes. “We put 500 plants on order hoping we could unload them, or my backyard would be full of milkweed,” Roberts says. “We sold those in about two days. I think we sold 4,000 that first year.”
Chrysalis attached to a surface Dyana provided
Roberts says the “Got Milkweed?” campaign has done well every year since and has expanded west to Manitoba and east to the Maritimes. He hopes that success will carry over to the Butterflyway Project. “Part of the work now is to take some of the energy and enthusiasm that people have for monarchs and put it into places that benefit other species,” he says. “My ambition is to have people identify at least a couple butterflies that float through their backyards.”
Chrysalis "shell" left behind once butterfly emerged
Dyana took me on a tour of her neighbourhood and I was delighted to see several gardens with planted milkweed for the monarch butterfly.

Things that you can do to help:

·      Plant a butterfly garden. Add plants that take the monarch from tiny egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult. These include plants in the milkweed family and nectar-rich blooming plants. Most nurseries sell pollinator mix seeds.

·      Plant milkweeds in your garden. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The adults get most of their energy from the nectar of plants.

Front garden with planted milkweed
Place your garden where it receives lots of sunlight but is also protected from the elements. You can create a shelter using trees, shrubs and perennials as well as logs and stones. Flat stones can serve as hot spots for butterflies to get warm.

·      Write your MLA / MNA / MPP and the minister responsible for environmental issues. Let them know you are concerned. Letters are important and taken very seriously by government; they understand that for every letter sent there are many who think similarly but aren’t writing.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vancouver Coffee Marathon—Four Coffee Shops in Four Hours

First Hour: Nusa Coffee and Kopi Luwak

Asian Palm Civet
I started my coffee marathon at Nusa Coffee, on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano. Nusa means “islands” and, indeed, Marcus, one of the partners, told me that most of their coffee comes from Indonesia, an archipelago of over 17,000 islands stretching an expanse the length of Canada. 

Nusa features coffee from beans grown in the Ngada region of Flores, the Toraja Highlands of central Sulawesi, the Kintamani Highlands of Bali and the Gayo Highlands in Sumatra Gayo.

But I’d come for kopi luwak—otherwise known as cat poop coffee—made from coffee beans that have been digested by a small Indonesian cat called an Asian Palm Civet (Paradosorus hermaphroditus)—a small viverrid native to South and Southeast Asia. They help maintain tropical forest ecosystems through seed dispersal as they feed on pulpy fruits such as mango, rambutan and coffee.  

Why was I doing this? Well, since I’d heard about it, I just had to try it out for myself. According to The Vancouver Coffee Snob the civets feast on ripe coffee cherries, which start to digest and ferment in their stomachs. The enzymes allegedly remove the acidic tastes from the coffee, imparting new flavours. The cat then poops what’s left and farmers collect the poop, clean them, process and roast the beans. Civet coffee beans are harder and more brittle because they have been modified by the digestive juices of the civet.

Kopi Luwak at Nusa Coffee
Because of the new trend for Kopi Luwak, civets are being increasingly captured from the wild and fed coffee beans to mass-produce this blend. Many of the captured civets are housed and treated unethically. The impact of all these captures on the wild population and consequent ecosystems they live in, is not yet known. The lesson here is: do your research to ensure that the product you’re buying has been ethically collected from wild Civet poop. Nusa Coffee is one of them.

Marcus let me smell the beans before grinding them. The aroma was deep, pleasant and nutty. That carried into the coffee pour over (which is more gentle than using an espresso machine). Then it came to tasting it: I found it unpretentious, earthy with subtle tones that lingered in the back of the throat. As I breathed in the kopi luwak, I thought of the jungle where the civet lives…and poos. Nusa Coffee is also unpretentious; a cozy café with wood benches and tables and no overbearing music. 

Second Hour: Platform 7

Platform 7 Coffee
My second stop was Platform 7, on Broadway and Vine, where I stopped for lunch. Located in an old house next to a character-book store (a great combination for a writer!), Platform 7 is a creative take on a bustling “Victorian London train station in East Vancouver and a Belle-Époque Parisienne train station in Kits.” 

The café offers a large variety of coffees from their espresso bar, cold bar and brew bar. I enjoyed friendly service and pleasant jazz-fusion music as I ate lunch, a deliciously grilled turkey with cranberry sandwich.

Third Hour: Federal Store

The Federal Store
I continued east across town along Broadway into Mount Pleasant and walked south along Quebec Street toward 10th Avenue, where the Federal Store greeted me on the corner. Surrounded with cheerful flowers on all sides and a vegetable garden in the back, the café-grocer beckons me inside. I enter and feel like I’ve entered an alternative past: an integration of '50s trompe-l'oeil 3-D checker floor, plants, and homemade baking in the display with the avant-garde chic of wood and white. 

I ordered an Earl Grey tea (for a change from coffee) and sat outside, where I enjoyed the loose tea as birds sang around me and bees buzzed among the flowers.

Mia Stainsby of the Vancouver Sun writes, “One block away, Main Street hyperventilates and cars exhale carbon monoxide. But here at Federal Store, it’s quiet and I’m caught in a time warp. The vintage room stirs up romantic notions of simpler times.”

Fourth Hour: Le Marché St. George

Le Marche St. George
It grew hot as the day progressed, but I kept cool under the thick canopy of maples, chestnuts and ash trees as I proceeded southeast to my next destination. Once I’d topped the hill, I turned east on 28th and as I neared my next destination, I realized that I’d saved the best for last.

When I caught sight of Le Marché St. George, tucked behind several large poplar trees on the residential corner of 28th and St. George, I had to smile like a pilgrim finding a rest stop. Edith Piaff’s sultry voice sang through the open door of the large old house as cyclists and locals sat outside, drinking coffee and discussing their day. I entered the café-general store, walls high with diverse produce. It was no ordinary general store. This was the kind of place—I recalled my son telling me earlier—where you could buy your next Christmas gift. A cornucopia of interesting flotsam beckoned: from Woodlot candles and Maison Orphée mustard to black cyprus flake sea salt, flat breads, gourmet honey and pasta.

Inside Le Marche St. George
I ordered a flat white, which turned into a cappuccino. The barista—let’s call him Etienne—apologized and was ready to start over but I accepted the drink with a smile; I’d noted that he’d really made a European cappuccino, which is essentially a flat white (a cappuccino with no dry foam). I took the coffee and sat outside under the shade of a poplar tree and opened my book, “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx. 

Beside me, two young Asian men were discussing an article they’d read about how men get into and out of a bathtub. I realized I’d read the same line several times when one confided to the other that he thought he had sleep apnea and was slowly dying from oxygen deprivation over nights of not quite sleeping. 

All in a summer's day, I thought, and closed the book and my eyes, then put my feet up on the planter and smiled the smile of pure contentment.. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Do Plants Communicate? Why Is This Important For Us?

Pacific Spirit Park, UBC
Last week I went with Margaret on a nature walk led by UBC Professor and botanist Terry McIntosh in the Pacific Spirit Forest Park at UBC. McIntosh led us through a previously logged forest of Douglas fir, cedar, red alder, vine maple and hemlock. His guided walk was informative, enlightening and entertaining with copious stories that generated laughter and discussion.

Among many interesting discoveries, McIntosh pointed out the paint-like splotches of lichen on the red alder trees, assuring one hiker that these symbiotic communities of fungus, blue-green algae and in some cases yeast were not a harmful disease of the tree, but a commensal partner. The presence of lichens, in fact, just shows that sufficient light is there for them to photosynthesize and grow. Lichens are also a sign of clean, healthy air—given that they do not tolerate pollution in the air.

A moss expert, McIntosh pointed out the mosses on the ground, growing on soil, concrete and trees. After debunking the myth that mosses only grow on the north side of trees in the northern hemisphere—they mostly do, but not always—he mentioned that they were in their dormant stage in the dry summer; the fruiting bodies sprout when the haploid-dominant moss comes to life during the moist winter season to produce diploid spores.

When we reached a partial clearing, McIntosh pointed out 6-foot high horsetails (Equisetum sp.) flourishing amid Spirea and other native plants. Horsetails are really “living fossils”, being the only living genus in a family of vascular plants that reproduce by spores rather than seeds. 

Rendition of Calamites during late Paleozoic
For over one hundred million years the class Equisetopsida was much more diverse and dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests. Some grew 30 meters high. One of them, the genus Calamites, was abundant in coal deposits from the Carboniferous period and is featured in my upcoming novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

McIntosh also mentioned that the maple twig depicted on the Canadian one cent coin is botanically incorrect. The phyllotaxis of the twig on the coin is clearly alternate while maples all have opposite leaves.

Citing a bogus yet popular information source on the Internet, McIntosh pointed out the danger of using the Internet for taxonomic and ecological answers. He stressed the importance of doing accurate research by verifying the source—a reliable scholarly one. I totally concur with him on this. While the Internet is rich with good information, it can also be misleading and wrong. Users need to be discerning and verify information through cross-checking to ensure a reliable source. See my post on research.

However, I had to disagree on one point he made in the first five minutes of the walk. McIntosh began by describing how much of what goes on in a forest ecosystem is underground, involving bacteria and fungal mycelium that spread and colonize roots of plants. After supposedly blurting out the word “communicate” he berated himself and quickly ‘corrected’ by assuring us that “plants don’t communicate; they aren’t human.” But he allowed that they share nutrients and minerals.

This is still communication.

Humans don’t have the monopoly on communicating; communication occurs in many forms and ways—including vocalization, smell, frequency, gravity, and intention. Cells communicate. Atoms communicate. Everything communicates by acting and reacting, by sharing and receiving. All these interactions are a form of communication.

Moss growing on Red Alder forms community
To return to the subject of plants and trees particularly, UBC’s own forest ecologist Suzanne Simard has proven through hundreds of experiments over 30 years that trees share information via an underground cooperative communications network. “They [converse] not only in the language of carbon,” says Simard in a TED Talk, “but also nitrogen and phosphorus and water and defence signals and allele chemicals and hormones—information.” According to Simard, scientists had already speculated that this belowground mutualistic symbiosis—called a mycorrhiza—was involved. Mycorrhiza literally means “fungus root.” Fungal cells interact with the root cells and trade carbon for nutrients. The fungus gets those nutrients by growing through the soil and coating every soil particle. The mycelium connects different individuals in the forest—like birch with fir and works like the Internet with nodes and links. Simard and others demonstrated that hub or mother trees act as nodes to nurture hundreds of their young saplings and send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings.

Pacific Spirit Park, UBC
“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees” says Simard. “They are complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees to allow them to communicate, and provide avenues for feedback and adaptation. This makes the forest resilient through many hub trees and overlapping networks.”

But the forest is also vulnerable.

In her TED talk, Simard shows an aerial view of a region dominated by clearcuts, just on the border of Banff National Park—where several wildfires are currently burning. 

Simard shares that, “in 2014, the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide.” Not Brazil! “It’s 3.6 percent per year—four times the rate that is sustainable,” says Simard. 

She warns that massive disturbance at this scale can affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat, and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—creating more disturbance and more tree diebacks. She adds that the planting of one or two commercial species at the expense of the aspens and birches decreases needed complexity in the forest; it makes them vulnerable to infections and bugs. And wildfires. As climate changes, “this is creating a perfect storm,” says Simard, citing the massive mountain pine beetle outbreak that swept across North America and the wildfires currently devastating Alberta and British Columbia as good examples of the consequence of human disturbance.

The key to increasing the resilience to climate-induced wildfires, drought, disease and insect infestations is in recognizing that trees and other plants do and need to communicate in a diverse network of information exchange. Our forests have been weakened through poor forest management based on commercial clearcutting and mono-cultured forests. Complexity enhances an ecosystem’s ability to self-heal. Retention of hub trees and patch cutting (as opposed to clearcutting and monoculture) will help to regenerate a diverse ecosystem, less susceptible to disease, insect infestations, drought and wildfires (as opposed to regular fires, which can be beneficial by opening seeds and creating clearings for more light). Wildfires that burn hot (over 900°C) destroy most of the organic material of the soil, and with it the helpful fungus and bacteria that connects the trees. Wildfires may also impact how water circulates in a watershed; the burned organic matter affects the natural layering of the soils, making it water repellent. This increases runoff and erosion.

Climate Change and Wildfires

Wildfire smoke over Nadine Lake, BC
Citing a BC government report into the fires and floods of 2017, Tracy Sherlock of The National Observer writes: "Last summer could be a "new normal our province and planet now face due to the unpredictable and increasingly volatile impacts of climate change.” From 1900 to 2013, B.C.’s average temperature has increased faster than the global average, their report says. “Scientists predict that the province will face increases in extreme weather, rising sea levels, increasing risk of wildfire and flooding, as well as a change in the location of ecosystems and species that live there.” No one is sure whether climate change means more lightning strikes. Some research suggest more frequent strikes; other research suggests lightning will be less frequent.

Anatomy of a Wildfire

“Extreme heat lofts smoke, ash, and fire into the atmosphere, forging a 45,000-foot-tall convective column that generates two counterrotating vortexes—like a giant egg beater,” writes Kyle Dickman in Popular Science of the 2011 New Mexico wildfire. “It went from normal to nuclear, kicking up a 45,000-foot column of tornadic winds and burning debris.” Here’s how Dickman describes it:

simulation of New Mexico Wildfire
Burning vegetation releases moisture, which the fire’s heat drives up the plume. It condenses into a pyrocumulus cloud, which in turn can create extreme downdrafting winds that can further stoke the ground fire. As vegetation combusts, it releases fuel-rich hydrocarbons. Driven by updrafts, they rise and can ignite into towers of swirling flame. The massive vertical winds inside the column can rip a pine cone off a branch, set it on fire, shoot it a few hundred feet into the air, then spit it as far as 2 miles away, where it can start a new fire. At night, cool dense air pools in the Valles Grande caldera like water filling a 13-mile bathtub. When it sloshes over, it creates 26-foot-per-second winds that fly down-canyon and strike the wildfire’s southern flank. As they squeeze through the canyons radiating from the caldera, the winds gain speed, then rise above the ground and come crashing back like churning ocean waves. As the wind ignites the blaze, it drives the fire forward in 35-foot flames that look like rolling barrels of fire.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Water and Fire…And the ‘New Normal’

Last weekend, I drove with Pixl Press director Anne Voute beneath smoke-induced blushing skies from Vancouver to Calgary. We were heading for the eighth annual writers festival, When Words Collide in Calgary. As we drove, we were thinking: wildfires.

The drive took us out of BC’s coastal western hemlock region northwest towards Kamloops into the heart of wildfire country where hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest are now burning. The day we left, a wildfire had broken out much closer to home—between Hope and Agassiz, just west of BC Highway 7. We smelled the smoke as it billowed up and filled the valley. While a majority of fires were concentrated in areas northwest and southwest of Prince George, a number of them were already filling our coastal skies with enough particulates to create a red ball of the sun—and prompt air advisories throughout BC. The smoke stayed with us throughout the entire drive to Calgary.

In a recent article in “The Grist”, Kate Yoder mentioned the extensive heat maps that cover most of Europe. A new shade—magenta—was created to show the extreme over 35 degree temperatures blanketing much of Spain, France and Germany. According to Yoder, the Carr Fire in California was one of the most severe in their history; it burned down 1,000 homes and even spun a fire tornado through the air—uber scary!

“Over a decade or so, we’re going to have more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it,” California Governor Jerry Brown said recently. “All that is the ‘new normal’ that we will have to face.” Yoder asks: “Why on earth is the word normal being thrown around to describe such extraordinary times?” Normal is a dangerous term to use for many reasons. Most places can’t afford a future where climate change and sea level rise are the ‘new normal.’ Calling anything like this ‘normal’ suggests acceptance and hints at complacency. 
In my upcoming book A Diary in the Age of Water, limnologist Lynna contemplates in her journal on our tendency to turn a blind eye to environmental destruction. In one of her entries, Lynna discusses UBC fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly’s description of generational differences in the perception of dwindling fish populations. In 1995, Pauly coined the term ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ to describe peoples’ shifting concept of ‘normal and healthy’ in a shifting landscape. Inevitably, the past ‘normal’ is forgotten as the new ‘normal’ is embraced.
“Personally,” says Pauly in an interview with Yoder, “I think it’s wrong [to use the ‘new normal’]. We’re in the middle of a shift that can destroy what we hold dear, and to call this ‘normal’ is absurd.”

The term ‘normal’ suggests a static and relatively constant phenomenon, one that can be measured and predicted based on a known pattern. One of the reasons some people dismiss the reality of climate change is its very unpredictability (if we can’t measure it, it isn’t real). We are on the steep side of a curve whose slope is shifting with each year. NPR correspondent Kirk Siegler defined it this way: “The ‘new normal’ may be that things are just going to keep getting worse.” 

On our approach to Kamloops, we drove through kilometres of Engelmann Spruce and subalpine fir, changing to Ponderosa Pine with pockets of sagebrush Chaparral near Merrit. Last year, Kamloops lurked beneath a gray blanket of wildfire smoke and smelled of an old campfire; this year, despite ongoing wildfire activity nearby, we could see where we were going. The winds were on our side—for the time being. That would change; by the time we returned to Vancouver, the winds had moved southwest to blanket the lower mainland with a peach-coloured sky.

As we headed for Golden, dominant vegetation shifted to Interior Cedar / Hemlock, where extreme drought conditions prevailed. We saw evidence of previous and recent fires in the Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir forest stands as we continued through the south end of the Rocky Mountain Trench into the Rockies then on to Banff, Canmore and finally Calgary. Smoke clung like grease to steep mountain sides and blanketed the valleys.  Blue cliffs emerged from gray-pink low cloud, floating and suspended like a Lao Tse painting. Then, like ghosts, they vanished.

The limnologist in my book A Diary in the Age of Water also writes about Peter Kahn, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who coined the term ‘environmental generational amnesia’ to describe how each generation can only recognize—and appreciate—the ecological changes they experience in their lifetimes. In an article in The Meaning Of Water I argued that the inability to feel and connect beyond our immediate line of sight is a good thing—a kind of selective memory that allows us to adapt to each “new normal.” Mothers of several children can testify to the benefits of “forgetting” their hours of labour to give birth. Hence the ability and willingness to repeat this very painful experience.

Is this part of successful biological adaptation in all of us? The ability to reset? But, for the environment and our relationship with it, it is never really a reset. It is more like quiet acquiescence as we whittle our environment—and ourselves along with It—one unobtrusive forest at a time. I’m reminded of the lobster in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil. It doesn’t realize it’s dying until it does. And on some level, it doesn’t care—it is not sufficiently aware of its environment to appreciate what the incremental change means to its own survival. When does dis-ease turn to alarm? Who is to say that if that lobster wasn’t confined in a pot it would not have slowly edged away from the source of heat—like some of us deciding not to buy property in a 100-year floodplain?

The phenomenon described by Kahn’s environmental generational amnesia is not so much about not understanding or caring about the past, but of not being sufficiently connected to and caring about the present.

Each generation has its chance to connect and make a difference. Each generation is its own “reset”, providing a fresh perspective, and free to connect in its own way. It is all about connection. To return to my example of the mother gladly giving birth again and again—it is not that she has forgotten the pain; it is rather that she chooses to relegate her memory of it behind something far more beautiful and wondrous to remember: the miraculous birth of her child. Environmental generational amnesia is really part of a larger amnesia, one that encompasses many generations; a selective memory driven by lack of connection and short-sighted greed.

A Diary in the Age of Water explores identity and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana